You may have heard about the fire-and-brimstone preacher who thundered from the pulpit, “Everyone in this parish is going to die.” An elderly man in the first pew burst out laughing. Annoyed, the preacher thundered even louder, “I said, everyone in this parish is going to die.” Again, the man laughed. The preacher shouted, “What’s so funny?” The man answered, “I don’t belong to this parish.” Someday he’ll have the surprise of his life.
Seriously we have begun our Lenten journey: a journey from ashes to Easter. Last Wednesday, we had our foreheads smudged with ashes and may have heard the words, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” Dust represents the human condition. It symbolizes how transitory and fragile human life is: here today, gone tomorrow. That same day, we prayed for the 17 victims at a Parkland, Florida high school who died so tragically in a senseless shooting massacre. Our prayers continue to go out to the families of these victims.
My good friends, lent is a forty-day retreat. It's a time to ask again who and what are my most important priorities in life. Yes, it's a time to follow Jesus into the wilderness, into the desert, not only to confront perhaps the demons or addictions within us, but also to replenish ourselves with the gifts of the Spirit (for example, wisdom, good judgment, courage). Lent is a time to recall how the Jews of old saw the desert. It was not only an abode of wild beasts and demons; it was a place where a person encountered God and where God encountered the person.
So, what are we bringing into this Lenten retreat or wilderness where God will encounter us and we, God. Maybe we're feeling an emptiness, a dissatisfaction. Things are going OK, but we wonder: Is this what it's all about? We're building an impressive curriculum vitae, but what does it all mean in the end? Let this Lent be the season to focus on trying always to do the right thing.
Maybe we find ourselves facing new challenges and problems that we may not have expected: making the family income stretch a little more; living with a serious illness; needing to support a son or daughter through an especially difficult time.
Or maybe we're encountering a new development in our life: a marriage, the birth of a child; an anxious first year of college away from home.
Or maybe we're confronting a temptation that may throw us off track. We have to make some tough life-changing decisions. Listen to the response of Jesus to his “tempter” in the wilderness; Jesus rebuts the devil: God is my priority instead of creaturely things, service to others instead of a self-centered life, humility and generosity instead of “superstar” status.
Yes, Lent is a time to stop, to look deeply within ourselves, to ask who am I, where am I going and what's my true purpose. It's a time to reflect on what we want to stop doing and begin doing.
During these forty days, the Spirit leads us to rediscover the presence of God in our own lives; to walk with Jesus as our traveling companion through our own wilderness; and to let his Spirit of compassion and his light of wisdom drive the “tempter” out of our lives so that we can be a channel of grace to others.
The Book of Genesis speaks about God’s covenant with Noah, summed up simply but splendidly: You are my people; and I am your God. And the sign of that covenant is a rainbow, inviting us to recognize the link between heaven and earth, between God and ourselves, and to re-consecrate ourselves to God though the renewal of our baptismal promises.
The letter of Peter sees the history of our salvation through the lens of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus re-established a right relationship between us and God. And the Spirit deepens that relationship. And the image of Noah and the Ark alludes to the waters of our baptism and our call to be faithful to our baptismal promises.
In the Gospel, Jesus is in the wilderness where he overcomes the dark or evil forces of human existence, and then begins his public ministry of preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the Gospel.
My good friends, this Lenten season let us examine the direction of our own lives. Are we on the right track, so to speak? Do we have our priorities straight? And if we’re a bit off course, how can we get back on track? What do we have to stop doing and begin doing?
The Church invites us focus on three disciplines to help steer us in the right direction: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
1. Yes, treat ourselves to prayer. Prayer is an awareness of our absolute dependency upon God, a grateful response to God for our very existence. Prayer simply brings to consciousness the presence of God that is already around us and within us. There are many approaches to prayer: familiar prayers like the Our Father, this Eucharistic liturgy, the prayer of silence or petition. All of these approaches to prayer are simply windows or pathways into the presence of God. How often and how well do we pray? Even now, am I entering as fully as possible into this Eucharistic liturgy by participating wholeheartedly in the singing, listening attentively to the word of God proclaimed and celebrating devoutly the presence of the living Christ in the bread and wine.
2. Second, treat ourselves to fasting. Fasting is a Gospel value, but not fasting alone. Fasting and almsgiving are Gospel twins. For the early Christians, going without food “enabled the hungry to eat.” Fasting can also mean doing without anger, impatience, selfishness, negative judgments about others or whatever prevents us from living a life of discipleship with Jesus.
3. And finally treat ourselves to almsgiving. In early Christianity there were no “government safety nets” for the poor, the needy, the homeless, the sick. Almsgiving was seen as an essential community addition to prayer and fasting, not only in Lent, but every day. Share with others – and for others. Share our time – take time to visit, to listen, to write. Share our talent. Share our money with needy people, if we can. Share ourselves – smile more often to let others know that you want them to share your joy.
Yes, Lent tells us that it is time to ask God for the grace to get our priorities straight. It's time for prayer; time to fast from unnecessary things so people in need can have necessary things; time to reach out with a helping hand, through volunteer service or charitable giving or whatever.
For hundreds of years, Lent has focused on these good spiritual and corporeal works. Re-discover and re-treat yourself to these ages-old practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.